Tag: Earth Day

An Earth Day Review: The Michigan Environmental Protection Act in 2022

By Skip Pruss  

In 1970, over 20 million people participated in the nation’s first Earth Day. Pioneered by Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day was one of the first of what became to be known as environmental teach-ins. Senator Nelson sought to confront the growing list of environmental issues facing the nation and the world by galvanizing public interest and elevating the level of discourse on threats to our air, land, water, lakes, rivers, and oceans. 

The 1970s witnessed the enactment of an array of state and federal legislation aimed at dealing with a growing list of environmental impairments. The new regulatory architecture imposed limitations on emissions to air and discharges to water, controlled the management and disposal of wastes, and reduced the release of hazardous substances into the environment.

Among the most notable of these new laws, was the Michigan Environmental Protection Act—known to us Michiganders as “MEPA.” MEPA took a dramatically different approach to environmental protection.  

While federal statutes like the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act took aim by ratcheting down allowable levels of hazardous materials discharged into the environment, MEPA empowered “any person” to bring an action in court “for the protection of the air, water, and other natural resources and the public trust in these resources.”

Under MEPA, citizens have the power to use the courts to protect local natural features “from pollution, impairment, or destruction.” If a citizen is able to show that an activity will pollute, impair, or destroy a natural resource, then the proponent of the activity must either rebut the evidence or demonstrate that there is “no feasible and prudent alternative.”

The Michigan Environmental Protection Act’s use as an essential legal tool has never been more important or in greater legal need than right now.

MEPA also requires a determination whether a proposed project “is consistent with the promotion of the public health, safety and welfare in light of the state’s paramount concern for the protection of its natural resources from pollution, impairment or destruction.”

In essence, MEPA requires that a proposed activity that may impair the environment be analyzed to determine not only whether there is a more environmentally benign way to accomplish the proposed activity, but also whether the effects of the activity are consistent with the “paramount” value of protecting public health and the environment.

Applying MEPA to Our Greatest Environmental Challenges

One of the leading champions and practitioners of MEPA has been FLOW’s founder, Jim Olson. For 50 years, he has put MEPA to work in the courts and administrative processes, defending wetlands, streams, flora and fauna, and human health.  Jim has adeptly used MEPA to protect the Great Lakes and its tributary rivers and streams, vindicate indigenous treaty fishing rights, and limit Nestlé’s withdrawal of Michigan groundwater.

For the first time, at the urging of FLOW, a state agency has acknowledged that MEPA applies to activities that result in large-scale greenhouse gas emissions. In reviewing Enbridge Energy’s request to the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) for authority to construct a tunnel to house a replacement for the Line 5 pipelines that currently cross the Straits of Mackinac, the MPSC ruled that not only is an analysis under MEPA required, the analysis must include a review of the greenhouse gas “pollution” attributable to the hydrocarbons transported within the pipelines.

Tar sand oil production, Fort McMurray, CA Photo by Environmental Defence Canada.

The MPSC agreed with FLOW’s arguments that MEPA is supplementary to other existing regulatory and administrative procedures, and that MEPA requires consideration of the likely environmental effects of the proposed tunnel project, including the cumulative effects of greenhouse gasses on climate change.

FLOW will be relentless in our efforts to ensure that MEPA is properly invoked to protect the public trust in all our vital natural resources.

FLOW has consistently argued that all major permitting decisions undertaken by state and local governmental authorities that involve activities that may impair natural resources also must undergo a separate review under MEPA. Without such a thorough analytical review, permitting decisions are incomplete and invalid.

Inherent in MEPA is the affirmation that our air, water, and natural features are irreplaceable and that maintaining the functionality, vitality, and resilience of natural systems is essential to our well-being and that of future generations. The rapidly evolving science of ecological economics affirms that natural systems provide trillions of dollars of economic value that are lost to future generations when natural resources are impaired or destroyed.

The Michigan Environmental Protection Act’s use as an essential legal tool has never been more important or in greater legal need than right now. FLOW will be relentless in our efforts to ensure that MEPA is properly invoked to protect the public trust in all our vital natural resources.

The Geography of Hope Is Anchored in Our Precious Great Lakes

Photo of Maude Barlow by Michelle Valberg.

As the 53rd Earth Day approaches, it is difficult for some to look optimistically to the future. Accelerating climate change, microplastics fouling oceans and the Great Lakes, our stubborn reliance on fossil fuels, and a governance system resistant to the holistic environmental reforms we need are only a few of our worries.

But hope is more critical than ever—and two famous environmental leaders are sources of optimism.  

In his 1960 Wilderness Letter, conservationist and author Wallace Stegner famously coined the phrase “geography of hope,” referring to the impulse that led Americans to the wilderness idea.

Now, in 2022, comes another prophet of hope, Maude Barlow. A lifelong and world-renowned champion of water, Maude has authored a book built on her career of activism. Its title, appropriately, is Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism.

“Hope often defies logic and gives us the strength to continue when all the ‘facts’ tell us things are hopeless,” Maude writes. “Hope helps us to put one foot in front of the other when despair would tell us not to move.” If, after decades of advocacy, Maude can remain hopeful, surely we who have not carried such burdens can do so also.

In the book, Maude tells stories of her work on many issues, perhaps most importantly her successful advocacy of water as a human right. Resisted by many governments, this idea faced enormous challenges, but in July of 2010, the work of Maude and allies resulted in a declaration of the human right to water by the United Nations General Assembly. The vote was 122 nations in favor, with 41 abstentions—no nation voted against the resolution.

“Hope often defies logic and gives us the strength to continue when all the ‘facts’ tell us things are hopeless,” Maude writes. “Hope helps us to put one foot in front of the other when despair would tell us not to move.” If, after decades of advocacy, Maude can remain hopeful, surely we who have not carried such burdens can do so also.

Save the Date: FLOW will host a livestream book event featuring Maude Barlow on Wednesday, June 15, from 6 to 7 p.m. Eastern. Registration information coming soon.

In this part of the world, our geography of hope is anchored in the Great Lakes. Despite centuries of neglect and abuse since European settlement began, these lakes remain majestic, a source of inspiration and wonder. We can do better for them, and I know we (FLOW and you) will do so.

We can’t afford to lose hope. Many reasons for hope persist. On Earth Day 2022, let’s make a vow of hope, and remain undaunted by the challenges we face.

Earth Day 2021: This Year It’s Really about the Whole Earth

With growing scientific confirmation of accelerating global climate change, Earth Day 2021, which falls this Thursday, is more than just another Earth Day. For the first time, an American president will host an international climate summit on Earth Day to “reset” domestic and international strategies to combat alarming climate trends. The Biden Administration invited 40 world leaders to the summit, and on April 17 announced an agreement with China to “seriously and urgently” tackle the problem.

Since taking office January 20, President Joe Biden has announced several major steps to strengthen United States. climate change strategy. He revived U.S. participation in the 2015 Paris international climate accord, which seeks to limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. He is proposing $14 billion in new federal budget initiatives to attack the climate emergency.

Meanwhile, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer created the Council on Climate Solutions to advise her on ways the state can become carbon-neutral by the year 2050, and achieve a 28% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. The Office of Climate and Energy has scheduled two listening sessions to hear public comments about the MI Healthy Climate Plan, one on Earth Day and one on May 5. Click here to join the Earth Day virtual listening sessions.

Biden’s steps may be the most important a president has proposed since the first Earth Day 51 years ago, and Whitmer’s developing climate plan has major implications for Michigan’s future. But Earth Day-related action is nothing new to Michigan. The year of the first Earth Day, 1970, is a significant date in Michigan environmental history. Last year, FLOW illuminated the ways in which Michigan citizens and elected officials put our state on the map in 1970 with the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the creation of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the Natural Rivers Act, and more.

While global issues will headline Earth Day events, individuals can show their stewardship in a number of ways this spring:

Homegrown National Park, a cooperative conservation effort, hopes to spur Americans to restore biodiversity and support ecosystem function by planting native plants on 20 million acres of private land, approximately half of America’s privately-owned green lawns.

Improvements in organic waste disposal represent one of the most promising areas for growth in small scale attempts to mitigate climate change. A composting initiative in your backyard or community can help keep organic matter out of landfills while simultaneously reducing methane gases and our ecological footprint. For information on how to start a composting program for your household, check out these resources from NPR on “How to Compost at Home” and Oregon State University on “Compost in the Backyard. (FLOW intern Alex Theophilus is teaching seventh graders at Glenn Loomis middle school in Traverse City how to backyard compost.)

More Opportunities to Observe Earth Day in the Grand Traverse Region 

The Grand Traverse County Conservation District is organizing an Earth Day Workbee at the Miller Creek Nature Reserve. Tree planting and trail sprucing up run from 9:00 a.m.-noon Thursday.

Green Elk Rapids is sponsoring an Earth Day celebration on Saturday, April 24,with stations on recycling, pollinator gardens, and green infrastructure and green practices, among other exhibits and activities.

The Leelanau Conservancy will hold a variety of Earth Week events, including a virtual kickoff for the expanded Palmer Woods Mountain Bike Trail near Maple City and a cleanup of Conservancy natural areas.

Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak in Empire is partnering with Sleeping Bear Dunes to host a beach cleanup at North Bar Lake on April 22.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore will engage the public in Earth Day virtually through this year’s theme, “Restore Our Earth.” The National Park Service will host a virtual event at 1 pm EDT on April 22 titled, The Future of Conservation.

On Earth Day and Every Day, We’re All in this Together

Photo: The New York Daily News covers the first Earth Day, 1970

By Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director

The biggest Earth Day celebration I attended happened 30 years ago when I volunteered as an Earth Day ranger at one of the largest gatherings ever held in New York City in Central Park. It was a big deal, and we had high hopes. Some 750,000 people gathered that day to celebrate 20 years of Earth Day with an incredible, free musical lineup featuring The B-52s, Edie Brickell, and Daryl Hall and John Oates. I was a senior in high school, ready to launch into the world and tackle the most pressing local and global environmental issues, like Amazonian deforestation at the mercy of corporate America’s fast food desires. 

Central Park was pulsating to “Love Shack” and other upbeat tunes that beautiful, sunny day, but sadness hit me when the huge crowds departed and left behind thousands of pounds of garbage that I and other rangers cleaned up. This day was supposed to be a call to action and an awakening to celebrate and care for the planet. Instead, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth and raised all sorts of unanswered questions about how positive change could take root.  

In 1990, sustainable development was the buzzword of the day, but we struggled to find practical examples where modern industrial communities didn’t externalize costs and create products that harmed and polluted natural ecosystems and wildlife. Finding this balance seemed distant, particularly without the kind of technologies that have revolutionized the way we live, work, and play today. In those days, we were thinking about organic food, plastics, toxic and chemical contamination, and wilderness protections, to name a few leading concerns. Even though climate change and global warming weren’t officially part of our vocabulary, we were worried about ozone holes and CFCs in styrofoam and other products.

But we had not fully contemplated our fossil fuel addiction and how powerful interests would shape national and global policies and energy practices to delay alternative renewable energies over the next 30 years. Nor did we recognize that our work needed to fully embrace environmental justice in order to root out and dismantle structural racism, poverty, and societal inequities.

In the three decades since, success stories have given us hope with the healing of some rivers, lakes, estuaries, and wetlands, the revival of polluted Rust Belt cities, and the protection of ecologically critical habitats. But we also have witnessed the continued transformation of megacities and urban sprawl, biodiversity loss, the proliferation of global oil production and plastics, and the unprecedented growth of consumerism and cheap products. Our actions have had profound effects that ripple to every corner of the Earth.

The interconnectedness of human and natural ecosystems has never been more apparent. It’s the clarion call, the mantra, and the rallying cry of this global pandemic crisis: We’re all in this together. This virus does not discriminate, taking the lives of people from all socio-economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and yet, the death toll is disproportionately higher among African Americans and other people of color. In Michigan, for example, African Americans constitute just 14 percent of Michigan’s population, but account for 35 percent of the cases and 40 percent of the deaths attributable to COVID-19, to date. Healthy ecosystems depend on healthy, equitable communities, and access to water. Period. 

But we had not fully contemplated our fossil fuel addiction and how powerful interests would shape national and global policies and energy practices to delay alternative renewable energies over the next 30 years. Nor did we recognize that our work needed to fully embrace environmental justice in order to root out and dismantle structural racism, poverty, and societal inequities.

So as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day during these uncertain times, one thing is certain: protecting clean water is more important than ever before. This global pandemic has exposed the gross inequities of our society, including the unconscionable practice of denying people basic access to water for drinking, hand washing, cooking, bathing, and sanitation.

It is time for us to demand public water and public justice for all. Not just water for some. Without access to life’s most essential need — water —our society will falter and our future will falter. This work demands that frontline groups and policy organizations work side-by-side in our collective struggle for water justice. This organizing principle of empowerment guides our work at FLOW. It is a time for us to reimagine how we rebuild a just and equitable society where water is recognized and protected as a human right, where our economy respects human and natural capital, and where we no longer take each other and this small blue planet for granted.

Earth Day at 50: Observing Natural and Political Cycles

Image by Jennifer Martinez / Downers Grove South

By Dave Dempsey, FLOW Senior Advisor

Because we’re concerned about protection of water, the FLOW staff and board make frequent reference to the hydrologic cycle in our conversations. You know, the movement of water from the Earth’s surface to the atmosphere and back again. But on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the cycles of politics also come to mind.

Dave Dempsey as a 2-year-old boy (left) together with his brother Jack (right) in 1959 on the shore of Lake Erie, before the tumult of the 1960s and the environmental progress of 1970.

I was 13 and unconcerned about environmental issues on the first Earth Day in 1970—teenage obsessions were foremost on my mind. But because my father was a public servant and spoke to my brothers and me about policy, governance, and elections throughout our youth, I was well aware of the social ferment around the Vietnam War, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement. Among my formative memories were the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, when I was barely old enough to understand it and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968. My generation came of age during a domestic and overseas bloodbath, but also a time of rising activism to make the world better.

But only when I look back at 1970 later in life, as an amateur environmental historian, do I fully appreciate what happened that year. It wasn’t just April 22—the first celebration of Earth Day—it was 12 months of successful citizen work to raise consciousness and pass new federal and state laws that revolutionized America’s treatment of air, water, land, fish, and wildlife. Michigan was a national leader on the environment throughout 1970. Every time I think of Michigan in 1970, I am deeply grateful to the many largely unsung citizens who pressured elected officials to conserve and protect the environment. We owe them a great debt for reforms that persist today.

By the time I dedicated myself professionally to environmental policy, the cycle had moved almost to the opposite side. Michigan’s unemployment hit 17% in 1982, and conservative political forces had chosen environmental laws and rules as one culprit (even though, in reality, an energy crisis and policies to squeeze inflation had induced a national downturn).

Most of my career has taken place in that long swing of the pendulum. For the most part, my contemporaries and I have been playing defense. In a swirling flood of destruction, we’ve been holding on to many of 1970s’ gains like a life raft.

That’s the policy world. In the world of public consciousness, the need for environmental protection has remained steadfast. What seems to have changed, then, is the link between public opinion and public policy.

Opponents—primarily Big Business and Big Agriculture—have changed tactics. Instead of bluntly saying they doubt the need for environmental protection, as they often did in 1970, they acknowledge the need but offer a different route—voluntary, non-enforceable stewardship that has proven to be undependable. It almost makes me long for the days when they were blunt about their belief that environmental protections were a luxury America could not afford. They aren’t so direct now. They exploit Supreme Court decisions about back-door corporate funding of political campaigns and lavish significant sums to install candidates who talk a good environmental game, but won’t deliver.

These changes could lead one to despair, but they shouldn’t. When I first started looking at Michigan’s environmental history, I found evidence of the first lonely citizen voices who sounded alarms about the ravaging of Michigan’s forest, fish, and game in the 1870s. Those voices swelled into a chorus within decades, and a crescendo in 1970. If those earliest conservation pioneers could start from nothing 150 years ago to accomplish so much over generations, we should take heart. We are neither few, nor lonely.

I began this essay by talking about cycles. There are indeed cycles of water and politics, but there is also a kind of renewable energy in the citizenry. What’s needed is a long perspective. If it has been the lot of my generation to fight for what the previous one accomplished, it will likely be the next generation’s accomplishment to make the broad advances needed to assure a high quality of life for humans and the world we inhabit.

One of the slogans of Earth Day 1970 was “think globally, act locally.” Fifty years later, I would frame it in time, rather than scale: Think millennially, act perennially.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Dave Dempsey is the senior policy advisor at FLOW.

Earth Day Against the Backdrop of the Events of 1970

Organizers of the original Earth Day celebration at U-M reunite 50 years later. Photo courtesy of University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability

By Lana Pollack

Lana Pollack has served as President and CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council, U.S. Section Chair of the International Joint Commission, and a three-term state senator.

The first Earth Day celebration at University of Michigan did not wait until April 22, 1970, the date Wisconsin’s Senator Gaylord Nelson had set for environmental teach-ins across the country. In Ann Arbor, this history-changing observation blasted off March 11 when 15,000 people jammed U-M’s Crisler Arena, and thousands more crowded its parking lot. The four-day happening was sponsored by a new U-M organization, Environmental Action for Survival of the Planet (ENACT), and it was successful beyond the wildest dreams of its young organizers.

By the time this Earth Day precursor closed, 50,000 people had attended 125 events, virtually all of which had been amply covered by national press. Determined to be inclusive, ENACT’s organizers invited and accepted requests to speak from a dizzyingly diverse collection of high-profile individuals ranging from the avuncular Arthur Godfrey to the all-but nude cast of the musical Hair and top-of-the-charts singer Gordon Lightfoot. Headline environmentalist Barry Commoner was joined by Michigan’s Governor William Milliken, the University’s President Robben Fleming (exceptionally adept at avoiding conflict by giving voice to student concerns), the presidents of both Dow Chemical and the United Auto Workers, along with environmental leaders from around the country and of course Senator Gaylord Nelson. Almost every University School and department sponsored a workshop, lecture or symposium on environmental issues related to its discipline.

Not surprisingly, as U-M had been a focal point for many of the white-hot 1960s protests, this environmental happening did not want for a generous dose of zaniness mixed with serious social criticism. A blue Ford Mustang was put on trial in the center of campus. In spite of arguments energetically presented in defense of the accused car (the auto industry was the backbone of Michigan’s economy), the Mustang was found “guilty of murder of the American public.”  Its sentence was death by sledge hammers, with hundreds of observers cheering the executioners.

Somehow, I missed the car’s demise, the ceremonial dumping of thousands of non-recyclable coke cans, Gordon Lightfoot, the crowds in Crisler Arena and even the lectures and symposia in the School of Education where I attended classes and my four-year-old son, John, went to pre-school. 

How did I, a politically interested student who was on campus almost every day, miss out on this eclectic happening we now recognize as the kick-off of the modern environmental movement? Given my full-on commitment to environmental advocacy in the decades that followed, I’ve questioned why I was not an organizer, or at least a participant. In positing my answer, I have vivid memories of an overwhelmed young woman, determined to be a flawless supermom while completing her MA in Education and maintaining a household that showed not a speck of disorder. And all of this in an age when even the nicest of husbands (mine) felt their professional work excused them from sharing childcare responsibilities with their wives. 

But there was another reason I was MIA from Michigan’s original Earth Day, a reason I understand better years on in reading about a memorable session dubbed the Scream-Out. The Scream-Out was the platform for those who thought Gaylord Nelson was wrong in calling for a national day of environmental reflection. In preparing the multifaceted program, organizers had faced arguments that an active environmental movement would only distract from more pressing social injustices. Black student activists saw all that was lacking in commitment to ending campus racism. Just before the four-day, 50,000-person Earth Day teach-in, the U-M campus had been wrenched by a campus-wide strike led by the Black Action Movement (BAM). In a tense two-week stand-off, a large and growing number of professors and students (myself included) refused to cross picket lines in support of BAM’s demands to raise black student enrollment and increase successful minority engagement on campus.

Joined by frustrated anti-war protestors on a campus that fairly enough claimed to be the birthplace of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), it was not surprising that there were both black and white reformers who questioned the importance of Johnny-come-lately environmentalism. (At the time, just a few environmental activists and scholars were beginning to conceptualize environmental justice.) Although I did not consciously decide to boycott the environmental teach-in, I do recall thinking that both the women’s and the environmental movements were of less significance than fighting racism and the Viet Nam War. It was at the Scream-Out, had I attended it, that I would have heard a substantive discussion of my own poorly-formed concerns.

But I didn’t go. I had two small children to care for, MA degree assignments to be finished, and a broken refrigerator to be replaced at home. I could never have imagined in 1970 that both my husband and I would spend decades dedicating ourselves to advancing deeper environmental understandings and better environmental laws, no matter what other responsibilities we faced.

Ironically, my slow-off-the-blocks start as an environmentalist has made me a more effective advocate. Remembering how overwhelmed I felt then, toiling to manage multiple responsibilities, has prompted me to be more respectful when engaging with people struggling today to get on top of their own lives’ demands. And recalling that on Earth Day One I viewed environmental concerns as competitors with — rather than integral to — battles for social, economic and racial justice, prods me now to act more inclusively, recognizing that the fabric of a healthy planet and just society is woven from many threads.

Progress at Home, What About the Planet?

Photo: a 1970 Earth Day poster at the University of Michigan.

By Mel Visser

April 22 is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day 1970, a milestone in this country’s environmental history. We asked people of all perspectives to provide us their thoughts on the meaning of this anniversary.

Around the time of Earth Day’s inception in 1970, the rallying cry of “Think Globally, Act Locally” emerged. Fifty years of local action has greatly improved our air and waters, but is Earth any better off? Let’s look back at global/local/environmental evolution to see where we were, where we are, and where we are going.

The Grand Rapids of my youth was a sustainable nirvana. All beverages were purchased in refillable glass bottles; all paper, glass, and metals were recycled (with companies paying to get the materials); backyard gardens supplied vegetables, fruits and berries; eggs came from nearby farms; public transportation prospered, and carpooling was extensively practiced. Broken items were fixed and nothing was thrown away. The main reason for this was that World War II consumed our resources. Gasoline, sugar, paper, and dozens of other necessities were rationed or unavailable.

After the war factories churned out civilian goods like cars, bicycles, refrigerators, and radios. The chemical age offered “Better things for Better Living through Chemistry.” DDT killed pesky mosquitos, fireproof PCBs replaced flammable oils, and plastics brought us all manner of wonder. The United States became the global supplier of automobiles, hardware, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and agricultural products. Our population boomed and we prospered. Our attitude toward the environment remained as it did during the war: a few dead fish in the river and air that made you choke was the price of progress. Earth could take care of herself.

Municipal sanitary waste, farm runoff, and factory effluents filled our rivers with nutrients and toxics. Weeds choked, rivers died, fish turned belly up, and even the “unpollutable” Great Lakes lost their ability to sustain life. The “price of progress” was questioned. Turning around ingrained practices of freely discharging municipal, industrial, and agricultural wastes was difficult and as contentious as today’s politics. Massive federal spending addressed our toilet discharges and laws and regulations were enacted to control industry. Resulting industrial “discharge permits” were viewed as a “license to pollute” by the activist public and cries of “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) developed. Industry, the institution that was once perceived as the provider of health, wealth, and comfort was now perceived as an Earth destroying monster.

Other countries recovering from World War II, economically disadvantaged by importing U.S. manufactured goods, desired their own wealth and job creating manufacturing. The American public supported manufacturing’s offshore migration as the natural progression to a service economy, a society of intellectuals, researchers and developers with manufacturing relegated to a lesser developed nation. Earth suddenly became “economically flat,” with low-cost producers supplying global needs. Nations eager to raise their citizenry from poverty jumped onto this concept. The locus of global manufacturing shifted East where terrible working conditions, rape of the environment, and cheap coal for energy were major components of low-cost. Our economically flat world became environmentally warped!

Acting locally has gotten us clean air and water, but what has it done for Earth? Aren’t we rather arrogant to relish our environment while importing cheap manufactured goods made by people choking on their air and vomiting from their water? Will countries continue to meet carbon dioxide emission targets by sending manufacturing to countries without targets? Sustainability of climate and health demands a much less myopic view of Earth thinking/acting than the first 50 years of celebrating Earth Day has given us.

Mel Visser was born in Grand Rapids, educated in Houghton, and worked in Portage, Michigan. As the executive in charge of environmental compliance at a major Michigan chemical manufacturer, Mel served on the Scientific Advisory Board of Michigan’s Great Lakes Protection Fund, the Great Lakes Regional Corporate Environmental Council (Founding Cochair), and the State’s Innovative Technology Task Force. Unable to understand why banned chemicals remained at hazardous levels in the great Lakes, in retirement Mel traveled and researched the issue, culminating in his book Cold, Clear, and Deadly: Unraveling a Toxic Legacy (MSU Press 2007). Mel and his wife Gloria now split their time between Portage and their condominium in Hancock. Mel serves on the Community Advisory Group to the Kalamazoo River PCB contamination site and is active in Great Lakes contamination and climate issues at Michigan Tech.

A Truly Golden Anniversary: 50 Years Since the Environmental Awakening of 1970

Photo: Students and faculty at the University of Michigan organized an environmental teach-in attended by 50,000 people in March 1970. It led to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

By Dave Dempsey

Although American environmentalism reaches back to the early 20th century, public demands for clean water, clean air, and healthy ecosystems reached a crescendo in 1970. As 2020 dawns, FLOW believes it’s time to remember and reflect on all that happened that 50 years ago—and how we can make the next 50 years a time of further dramatic progress for our precious waters and the environment.

In the minds of some who were present then, the most prominent environmental memory of 1970 is likely the first national observance of Earth Day, April 22—with Michigan out front on that one. In March 1970, students and faculty on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor organized what they called an Environmental Teach-In. 

At the five-day teach-in, in which an estimated 50,000 people participated, Victor Yannacone, a nationally recognized environmental attorney, spoke on use of the courts to halt pollution. He told students, “This land is your land. It doesn’t belong to Ford, General Motors, or Chrysler…it doesn’t belong to any soulless corporation. It belongs to you and me.” A new student group called ENACT organized the week’s events, which included an “Environmental Scream-Out,” a tour of local pollution sites, music by singer Gordon Lightfoot, and speeches by entertainer Arthur Godfrey, scientist Barry Commoner, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and Senators Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin and Edward Muskie of Maine.

The national observance of Earth Day followed on April 22.

Earth Day 1970, however, was just one of many events and accomplishments—and a few crises—both nationally and in Michigan. During 2020, FLOW will note these and other milestones from 50 years ago:

  • January 1, 1970: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) took effect.
  • January 1970: Michigan Governor William G. Milliken unveiled a broad agenda of proposed environmental reforms.
  • March 1970: The discovery of alarmingly high levels of toxic mercury temporarily shut down fishing in Lake St. Clair.
  • March 1970: Environmental Teach-In at U of M in Ann Arbor
  • April 22, 1970: Earth Day
  • July 27, 1970: The Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) took effect.
  • October 21, 1970: Legislation creating Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in northwest Lower Michigan took effect.
  • December 2, 1970: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was officially created.
  • December 3, 1970: The Michigan Natural Rivers Act took effect.
  • December 31, 1970: The U.S. Clean Air Act took effect.
  • December 31, 1970: The Michigan Great Lakes Shorelands Act was signed into law by Governor Milliken.

The first milestone, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), was co-authored by the late Congressman John Dingell of Michigan. As its title suggests, the law established a federal policy on the environment, created a federal Council on Environmental Quality, and required environmental impact statements on proposed major federal activities affecting the environment.

President Richard Nixon, who signed the legislation, said, “I have become convinced that the 1970s absolutely must be the years when America pays its debt to the past by reclaiming the purity of its air, its waters and its living environment.”

In 1970, there was a broad bipartisan consensus that the United States and Michigan needed to do a much better job of protecting our environment. It’s a lesson from which we can learn today.

 

Share Your Environmental Recollections from 1970

FLOW is looking for contributions from you for this 50th anniversary year of Earth Day and related milestones. Here’s how you can help:

  • Suggest additional local, state, or national milestones from 1970.
  • Provide short guest commentaries (500 words) with your views on the significance of 1970, what’s happened since then environmentally, and where you hope we stand 50 years from now.
  • Provide your historical photos of significant environmental events from 1970.

If you are interested in submitting material, please contact us at [email protected].

Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy advisor.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

Remembering Governor William Milliken, Protector of Michigan’s Environmental Soul

By Dave Dempsey

Michigan has many magnificent natural features, but none is quite like Hartwick Pines. A small remnant of the great white pine forest that spanned millions of acres of Michigan before the European arrival, the 49 acres at the heart of Hartwick Pines contain trees as tall as 160 feet and as old as 400 years. When, in 1992, a storm mortally wounded the tallest and largest of the primeval trees, known as the Monarch, it generated news headlines.

Another great tree has fallen. On Friday, October 18, former Governor William G. Milliken passed away at age 97 in Traverse City. The longest-serving governor in the history of Michigan, Milliken distinguished himself in numerous other ways, several of which seem especially important today. 

Former Vermont Governor Richard Snelling in 1982 suggested that Milliken “will surely be recorded in history as one of the nation’s great governors.” The day after Milliken’s passing, the Traverse City Record-Eagle wrote in an editorial that, “We cherish our governor … for his most precious quality: his innate ability to set aside party, politics and partisanship for the good of all Michiganders”.

Perhaps the Governor’s most lasting policy legacy is the framework of environmental laws that came into being during his 14 years in office, from 1969 to 1982. It was a case of the right person at the right time. As public consciousness of a century of environmental neglect and abuse peaked, and a clamor for a new approach grew to a crescendo, Governor Milliken took the initiative to propose or support, and ultimately sign into law the Michigan Environmental Protection Act, the Inland Lakes and Streams Act, the Wetland Protection Act, the Wilderness and Natural Areas Act, the Sand Dune Management and Protection Act, and many more. When the Legislature deadlocked on a proposed recycling deposit on beer and soda containers, he helped lead a citizen initiative to put the proposed law on the ballot. Voters approved it by a two-to-one margin in 1976.

Even in the 1970s, the decade of the first Earth Day, it wasn’t always politically easy to push for a cleaner environment. When scientists identified phosphorus laundry soaps as a major contributor to the algae blooms in western Lake Erie and elsewhere, the proposed remedy was a strict limitation on phosphorus content. Major Republican contributors strongly opposed the change, but Milliken defied them and took aggressive action to bring it into effect. Within only several years phosphorus discharges from wastewater treatment plants plummeted and Lake Erie began to recover.

Another important part of the Milliken record was his concern for the state’s great cities, including Detroit, which was deeply distressed during the 1970s. Working with Democratic Mayor Coleman Young, he invested state and federal resources in the city and won political support unusual for a Republican in the city. Today Milliken’s name crowns Michigan’s first urban state park on the Detroit waterfront.

Milliken’s regard for Michigan’s environment began early. His Traverse City upbringing (and a cottage in nearby Acme) acquainted him with woods and waters. Among his earliest memories were outdoor outings and swimming in Grand Traverse Bay. Deeply rooted in his home community, he frequently returned on weekends to his house on the bay while governor, finding peace and renewal.

But the Governor’s environmental record and values are not his only legacy. His style of governance—shunning the extremes, looking for solutions on which diverse interests could compromise for the public good—was the ultimate trademark of his service. In a time of divided government, when Democrats largely controlled the Legislature, he was able to enact his program through negotiation and cooperation.

Governor Milliken did not demonize his opponents. Public name-calling was foreign to him. And his civility worked. He remained in office longer than any other governor of Michigan in part because voters trusted him to do the right thing.

In researching and writing Governor Milliken’s biography, William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate, I was honored to spend many hours with him and his wife Helen Milliken, a major historical figure in her own right. They were in person as they were in public—unfailingly gracious, kind, and reflective. There was nothing false or inauthentic about them.

Bill and Helen Milliken

In our time together, both Millikens spoke repeatedly of their appreciation of Michigan’s beauty and the need to continue fighting to protect it. It should not be forgotten that it was Helen Milliken who alerted her husband to the controversy over oil development in the wilds of the Pigeon River Country State Forest, and urged him to take a stand in favor of the forest’s conservation. She was a major influence on his environmental policies.

After he left office, he famously summarized his environmental values: “In Michigan,” he said, “our soul is not to be found in steel and concrete, or sprawling new housing developments or strip malls. Rather, it is found in the soft petals of a trillium, the gentle whisper of a headwater stream, the vista of a Great Lakes shoreline, and the wonder in children’s eyes upon seeing their first bald eagle. It is that soul that we must preserve.”

A part of Michigan’s soul passed from the scene last week, but thanks to Governor Milliken’s work, our soul will renew itself for generations to come.

Dave Dempsey, FLOW’s senior policy adviser, wrote the award-winning biography William G. Milliken: Michigan’s Passionate Moderate (University of Michigan Press, 2006).

A memorial service for Governor Milliken will be held in May 2020. The Milliken family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory and in support of his environmental legacy be made to FLOW and the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy.

The Detroit River’s Waterfront Porch

John Hartig is intimately connected with one of the most successful environmental restoration projects in the United States, the recovery of the once highly degraded Detroit River. He retired in 2018 after 14 years as manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge and more than 30 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In his new book, Waterfront Porch: Reclaiming Detroit’s Industrial Waterfront as a Gathering Place for All, he chronicles the exciting comeback of the river and the connection restoration efforts have forged between the community and the river.

What is the single most important thing a prospective reader should know about your new book?

Waterfront Porch is the story of building the Detroit RiverWalk as part of a strategy to reconnect people with nature, help revitalize Detroit and its metropolitan region, and help foster a more sustainable future. In its first 10 years, the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy raised $110 million to build east riverfront portions of the Detroit RiverWalk and raised another nearly $40 million for an endowment to operate, maintain, steward, and program it with quality and in perpetuity. Economists have quantified that in the first 10 years of the Detroit RiverWalk, there was an over $1 billion return on this investment, with the potential for greater return in the future. All of this happened while Detroit became the largest city in the United States to go through bankruptcy. This was an amazing accomplishment that can be directly traced to the unique public-private partnership called the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy and its approach of democratic design that ensured all stakeholders were involved and would benefit. If this can be done in Detroit, it can be done elsewhere and clearly gives hope to all.

You’ve dedicated much of your life and career to restoring the Detroit River. What motivates you and where did your relationship with the river begin?

I grew up in metropolitan Detroit in Allen Park during the 1960s. My family enjoyed picnicking and canoeing on Belle Isle and fishing in the Detroit River. In the summer, we would vacation up north in different cottages and my sister and I attended a church camp in a wilderness area of the northern portion of the Lower Peninsula. These formative years provided me with two polar-opposite experiences — one recreating in pristine lakes and rivers up north and the other recreating in and along the polluted Detroit River. I could not understand why there was such a stark contrast. Then in 1969, when I was a junior at Allen Park High School, the Rouge River caught on fire because of oil pollution. The next year, when I was a senior in high school, I attended an Earth Day Rally on the football field of Allen Park High School that opened my eyes to the environmental degradation that was occurring everywhere. I decided I wanted to help be part of the solution. While attending Eastern Michigan University I got hooked on the study of lakes and rivers, and have been fortunate to be able to combine my vocation with my advocation.

Why did the River deteriorate so much up to the 60s and what are the principal factors that turned it around?

During the 1960s, the Detroit River was one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. In 1960 and 1967, 12,000 and 4,700 waterfowl died in the Detroit River because of oil pollution, respectively. In 1969, the lower Rouge River, right before it discharges into the Detroit River, caught on fire because of oil pollution. In 1970, the “Mercury Crisis” caused the closure of commercial and sport fishing on the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, and western Lake Erie because of mercury contamination. All of this led to public outcry over water pollution that contributed to the establishment of Earth Day in 1970, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Together, public outcry over water pollution and regulation have been the driving forces behind the revival of the Detroit River.

How important was the work of the late Congressman Dingell to river restoration?

The late Congressman John Dingell had more impact on the cleanup of the Detroit River than any other person. He was the key author of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Together, these acts have been the driving force behind the cleanup of the Detroit River. In more recent years he was the author of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Establishment Act of 2001 that helped change the perception of the Detroit River from that of a polluted river in the Rust Belt to an international wildlife refuge that brings conservation to the Detroit metropolitan area and helps make nature part of everyday urban life. He is a true conservation hero for our region, our country, and North America.

What remains to be done?

Clearly, much remains to be done to restore physical, chemical, and biological integrity of the Detroit River. Key challenges include addressing: human population growth, transportation expansion, and land use changes; continued loss and degradation of habitat; pollution from the runoff from our streets, parking lots, and roofs; remediation of contaminated river sediments and brownfields; introduction of exotic species; and climate change. To address these challenges, we need an informed constituency that cares about the river as their home, ensures continuous and vigorous oversight, and speaks out for continued cleanup and rehabilitation. A key part of this has been reconnecting people to the Detroit River through the Detroit RiverWalk, other greenways, parks like Belle Isle, and the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. Waterfront Porch is the story of building the Detroit RiverWalk as part of a strategy to reconnect people with the Detroit River, help revitalize the city and region, help foster a more sustainable future, and help develop a stewardship ethic within the citizenry. Completing the Detroit RiverWalk, greenway connections to neighborhoods like the May Creek Greenway and the Joseph Campau Greenway, and the Joe Louis Greenway that circumnavigates the city are key elements in reconnecting people with nature, developing greater environmental literacy, and developing a stewardship ethic so necessary for restoring and sustaining the integrity of the Detroit River. 

It is fair to say that the Detroit RiverWalk would not have been built without the cleanup of the Detroit River. But it is also true that continued cleanup of the Detroit River will require an informed and vocal constituency who cares for the river as their home and greenways like the Detroit RiverWalk help reconnect people with amazing natural resources right in their backyard, inspire a sense of wonder, and help foster a stewardship ethic.

Are you optimistic about the future of the River?  Why or why not?

I am optimistic about the future. The major accomplishment of the public outcry over water pollution in the 1960s was the establishment of major environmental laws and agreements like the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Canada Water Act of 1970, the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972, the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, and the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. This is an amazing set of accomplishments from concerned citizens working together to speak out for clean water. In my opinion, the major accomplishment of more recent times is the establishment of a plethora of environmental organizations, conservation organizations, and other nongovernmental organizations. For the Detroit River it is organizations like the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Friends of the Detroit River, the International Wildlife Refuge Alliance, the Detroit Greenways Coalition, the Belle Isle Conservancy, and many more. These organizations have picked up the environmental baton from citizen activists of the 1960s and 1970s and are continuing the long restoration race to ensure that a cleaner Detroit River is a gift to future generations. This gives me optimism and hope.